Walking the Ridgeway Path

The Ridgeway Path, which runs for about 100 miles through some of the most glorious countryside in southern England, is the oldest roadway in Britain. For at least 3,000 years, and possibly a great deal more, it provided the only real passage for travelers across the southern part of the country. Today, obviously, hundreds of alternative routes exist, but none is more rewarding that this wide, unpaved trackway. From its start at Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire, just north of London, the Ridgeway plunges off across the hide ridge of the Chiltern Hills and North Wessex Downs, meandering in and out of five counties, before depositing you at East Kennett, Wiltshire, almost on the perimeter of the Avebury stone circles (see page 104). Along the way you pass a dozen or more prehistoric tombs and fortifications, scenic landmarks with splendidly evocative names like Dragon Hill and the White Horse of Uffington, and even amble right through the grounds of Chequers, the official country retreat of Britain’s Prime Ministers (equivalent to Camp David but without the walkie-talkies and helicopters). Wander off the path and you’ll find inviting country pubs with names like the Shepherd’s Rest and the Shoulder of Mutton and villages whose redolent names - Ogbourne St. George, Letcombe Basset, Owlswick - manage to capture in a word or two their tranquil ambience.

It takes about five days to walk the path from end to end, but if pressed for time you could join it at, say, Letcombe Bassett (just south of Wantage) for a two-day hike to Avebury. Some of the hills may make you puff, but the views across the dreamy, unspoiled, and gently undulating countryside to the distant Cotswolds are a reward worth suffering for. This stretch of the route takes you past the famous White Horse - a magnificent, centuries old chalk horse, 365 feet wide and 130 feet high, carved into a sweeping hillside - and Barbury Castle, one of the largest and most important Anglo-Saxon hill forts in Britain. For anyone with a few spare days, sufficient stamina, and a bit of luck with the weather (the path can become a muddy morass in prolonged rain), I can think of no more appealing introduction to the lush glories of rural England.

Details: Anyone considering a serious assault on the Ridgeway should get hold of the excellent and highly detailed Ordnance Survey maps (numbers 165 and 173-75 cover the whole of the Ridgeway), available in most British bookshops. The Countryside Commission (52 Minster Street, Reading, Berkshire) provides a free leaflet on the Ridgeway and other long-distance footpaths in its care. Better still is the booklet Discovering the Ridgeway, price 60 pence, available from the Thames and Chiltern Tourist Board, 8 The Market Place, Abingdon, Oxfordshire.

William Bryson, The Palace Under the Alps, p92-93


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